In Times of Siege: Githa Hariharan

During the course of a week, I read three to four books. Most of these leave me untouched. This despite the numerous quotes that litter the dust jackets of these books; each out-vying the other in testifying to the book and writer's brilliance. In fact, these days, my reviewing antennae wiggle suspiciously when I see quotes….after all any reviewer worth her salt knows that most quotes are extracted and placed almost entirely out of context.

Githa Hariharan's In Times of Siege has its plethora of quotes. From Coetzee to Ondaatje, they vouch for her writing capabilities. Having never read her fiction before, I disregarded them as I have learnt to disregard most quotes and instead let the book make up my mind for me.

The book begins quietly enough. But as I read on, I realised that the quietness was a deceptive calm…like the ominous silence before a storm, the beginning of the book lulls the reader into an acceptance of a sedateness. So that when the storm arrives, its fury is that much more intensified. Hariharan cleverly paces the book and leaves enough clues so that one knows that all of this, the several stories woven in here are destined to an explosive climax. How, when, and where is what the rest of the book is all about.

Shiv Murthy, epitome of bland middleclass-dom, is a Professor of history in an open university located in Delhi. His ward, the bristling, filled with social, gender, all-kinds-of-issues indignation, fish-eyed Meena breaks her knee and Shiv Murthy takes her into his home. His wife Rekha is away in Seattle visiting his daughter and so it is Shiv who goes clothes shopping for her, washes her hair, pours her a drink, buys her ice cream and Asterix comics. At first, the book seems like an impending love tale between the two and then into this off-beat idyll, like a rumble of thunder, comes a phone call. Shiv and Meena discover that Shiv Murthy's lesson on Basava , the reformer poet unleashes the ire of an obscure Hindu fundamentalist group. Suddenly Shiv's staid life turns on its head and from sitting on the fringes Shiv is forced to confront much that he has steered away from - his past, his marriage, and life.

There are no resolutions in this book; no pat endings. Which is what makes the book even more remarkable. For Hariharan manages to instill a certain sense of rightness rather than dissatisfaction that unresolved endings could cause. It is enough we know that Shiv has been forced to see. 'Be free to be curious, to speculate; to debate, dissent. Reaffirm the value of the only heirloom he needs from the past, the right to know a thing in all ways possible.' Be it Meena or his mind.

In Shiv, Hariharan has created a character who for his ordinariness is that much more potent. And among her cameos, it is Menon with his penchant for staring at the ceiling who leaves an indelible impression. There is gentle humour and irony; a sensitivity and enough flesh and blood to make up for those times when the book meanders aimlessly or when the shrillness and a tendency to much 'speechify-ing' breaks the pace of the narrative.

In this peculiar times we live in, when even the past has only a precarious hold in time, a book like Hariharan's In times of Siege comes as a warning. Disturbing and moving, it tells of how menacing religion can be in the wrong hands.

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